The new blue and black British passport has come a long way since its introduction in 2020. You certainly can’t expect to wave it lightly in front of officials and assume they’ll be under the impression that His Majesty asks and demands that they let you through unhindered.
Indeed, the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU means you risk getting stuck in long queues when you arrive in a Member State – especially if you are landing at the airport at the same time as several other flights from the UK.
And last year it hit the Henley Index, which measures the “strength” of different national passports depending on how many countries they allow you to travel to visa-free. The UK dropped to 13th place, behind countries such as Singapore, Spain and Luxembourg.
Since then, the situation has improved. Henley’s latest report ranks it sixth, on par with France, Ireland and Portugal, but well below its 2010 ranking, when it was the most powerful passport on Earth. But at least things seem to be moving in the right direction.
Such ups and downs are largely part of the effects of Brexit and the terms on which it is negotiated. But there is one problem we cannot blame for this: bureaucratic delays and a huge backlog at the Passport Office.
In 2019, the waiting time for the renewal of the old maroon EU passport was only two to three weeks. Now you have to allow a maximum of 10. And according to a study published by the National Audit Office in December last year, 5 percent. applicants – some 360,000 people – had to wait even longer.
It’s true that the pressure has eased somewhat since demand peaked last spring. This is when the flood of renewal requests anticipating the end of Covid restrictions, coupled with a shortage of staff to handle them, caused chaos and led to some readers having to cancel their travel plans.
But while the Passport Office has had almost a year to reconvene, it still warns applicants to allow the full 10 weeks of renewal to be processed. And now it’s raising the prices. On February 2, the standard online application fee for UK adults will increase from £75.50 to £82.50 and the cost of postal applications will increase from £85 to £93.
Meanwhile, those of us who cannot go without a passport for so long – and I think there are many – are forced to pay even more for one of the two fast track services offered (gov.uk/get-a-passport-urgent). Their cost is also increasing. Fast Track increases from £142 to £155 and premium online from £177 to £193.50.
These increases, according to the Passport Office, will “help the government continue to improve its services”. I find it shocking that what used to be a simple and reliable service has deteriorated in this way. And frankly, it’s outrageous that those who need effective change are forced to pay penniless to take advantage of it.
So if your passport is about to expire, what should you do? Is it worth applying for renewal now before costs increase? Or maybe – in order to save a few pounds – you risk becoming part of a rush that will only add to the already long waiting times for passports to be renewed and issued?
The Passport Office has not changed its recommendations on processing times, but there is a risk that the surge in applications to beat the rise in prices will put more pressure on the system. It’ll catch you either way – apply later in February or March and the bulge will still be in the system. So, if you need to renew in the next few months, it’s best to go ahead and apply before the price goes up – as long as you can go without a passport for up to 10 weeks.